On one hand, you have two rookie quarterbacks riding superior defenses. On the other, you have two established quarterbacks dragging behind inconsistent Ds.
Any way you look at it, both add up to great matchups for Wild Card Weekend.
Texans vs. Bengals
When we studied the tape of these two teams, we came up with one guiding principle: They must win on third down.
Of course, that means winning on first down, too.
For the Bengals, shortening the third down “to-go” number for Andy Dalton is the difference between a continuing drive or a punt. On third downs of six or more, Cincinnati has converted just 22 of their 105 attempts (21 percent), which ranks 25th in the league. At the same time, they rank No. 7 on third downs of four yards or less (63.2 percent success rate).
The Texans run predominantly dime, man-to-man schemes on third down, which is not a favorable matchup for Dalton. While Houston might surrender the middle of the field on a blitz — and Dalton is more effective throwing inside the numbers — it will take time for Dalton’s receivers to uncover against press. Protection must hold up, or Dalton will have to venture quick and outside. In their previous matchup, Dalton was 0-for-4 on third-down throws outside of the numbers (2-for-3 inside).
Houston must also manage the game for its rookie quarterback, T.J. Yates, which means the more efficient running team on first down might prevail.
Giants vs. Falcons
We know Eli Manning and Matt Ryan will air it out, but, in a game in which both teams struggle against the run, the one who can stop the other’s ground game might have a head up. While the Giants have struggled stopping the run on first down, we are encouraged by their improvement against two-back running teams, such as the Falcons, in recent games.
In the last three weeks, the Giants have allowed 2.31 yards per carry against two-back personnel (a huge drop from their 4-plus yards per carry average for the season). Atlanta has 706 yards on 128 carries (5.52 yard per carry average) out of 21 personnel this season.
Then again, leading up to their 199-yard performance against Tampa Bay out of two-back formations, the Falcons averaged just 3.0 yards per carry in their prior three games. And Atlanta has averaged just 2.74 yards per carry in one-back sets the last four weeks (as opposed to their 5.08 yards per carry average out of 11 personnel for the season).
Getting Michael Turner rolling out of pass sets, or one-back, would be to their advantage, because New York struggles when it gets stretched out. The question becomes, will Atlanta cater their game plan to Turner and the Giants’ strength, packing the box with a two-man backfield, or will they try to spread out the Giants with Tony Gonzalez like the Saints and Eagles did with Jimmy Graham and Brent Celek, respectively. In three contests against the “one-back” Eagles and Saints, New York gave up 5.03 yards per carry.
If the Falcons fail to establish a consistent running game, they will invite an improving Giants pass rush to the doorstep of a so-so offensive line. Osi Umenyiora returned to the lineup against the Cowboys, allowing the Giants to align Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka as a 3-technique defensive tackle on passing downs, a formula that produced six sacks and six hurries.
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